Movies & TV / Columns

Dissecting the Classics – Airplane!

January 5, 2018 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard

Alright, we survived to 2018… somehow. It’s a new year, and most of my time has been dedicated to WrestleKingdom 12. You have to love a show that can be amazing while also crushing your soul. But let’s start the year off with a genre I don’t dive into very often; Absurdist Comedy!

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics . In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.


Wide Release Date: July 2, 1980
Written and Directed By: Jim Abrahams, David & Jerry Zucker
Produced By: Jon Davison
Cinematography By: Joseph Biroc
Edited By: Patrick Kennedy
Music By: Elmer Bernstein
Distributed By: Paramount Pictures
Robert Hays as Ted Striker
Julie Hagerty as Elaine Dickinson
Leslie Nielson as Dr. Rumack
Peter Graves as Capt. Clarence Oveur
Lloyd Bridges as Steve McCroskey

What Do We All Know?

“I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.”

So, this is a movie I actually just watched for the first time this week. Comedy is usually a tough sell for me, though I’ve started to realize my comedic sensibilities are more in line with movies before 1985 or so. But Airplane! is one of those movies with a reputation that meant I had to see it. And I am happy to say that it basically lives up to its reputation. Airplane! is one of the funniest spoof movies I’ve ever seen, and probably the best one not made by Mel Brooks.

The plot is lifted from a ton of plane disaster movies; something goes wrong, a conveniently placed pilot has to land the plan with the help of air traffic control. And hopefully reconnect with his flight attendant girlfriend. The plot is also inconsequential except as a framing device for hundreds of jokes. Which I’ll try not to spoil, for those as new to the experience as I am.

What Went Right?

In some ways, Airplane! was just the right movie at the right time. Disaster movies like The Towering Inferno, Airport and its sequels were a big part of the 1970s, and it was the right time to spoof the genre. Think about how pervasive the superhero genre is and how that helped Deadpool and you have the idea. But Airplane is also mostly timeless because its humor works with or without that frame of reference. It tells jokes that are as absurd and stupid as Spaceballs or Young Frankenstein, but at the pace of a Monty Python movie. Whenever a joke doesn’t land, you don’t have time to register it because several more have worked.

The film’s biggest success story is Leslie Nielsen, who’s deadpan delivery turns basic exposition into comedy. Nielsen was able to have a career renaissance after this movie, working with the directors on the very popular Naked Gun series. But everyone in this movie has at least a few standout scenes; Lloyd Bridges is particularly hysterical and has the best running gag in the movie, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has a great fourth wall breaking scene, and Robert Hays even manages a few gems despite mostly playing a traditional hero role. But beyond the one liners, the film is filled to bursting with physical gags and funny props. Multiple viewings are likely to yield new jokes every time. Which makes it worth rewatching, and that’s one of the best signs that any film is a genuine classic.

What Went Wrong?

As with most comedies, there’s always a few jokes that aren’t going to land for everyone. For me, a lot of them are jokes based on ethnicity or easy sex jokes. One joke about paedophilia really makes me particularly cringey. But I’m self-aware enough to know those are just pet peeves of mine and I think the film handles these things better than most in its era. Your mileage will probably vary, but I think most of this movie’s jokes work.

And In Summary…

Airplane! is a nearly perfect version of what it wants to be. It was funny when it came out, but it’s proved to be more than just a timely spoof. I had a very good time watching it. If it’s a film you’ve skipped out on, it’s worth taking a look at. And if you love the movie, there’s no reason to stop loving it.

Man, did I pick the wrong week to stop sniffing glue…

Like This Column?
Check out previous editions!
Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, Batman (1989), Casablanca, Goldfinger, X2, King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Dark Crystal, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens, Casino Royale, Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Batman (1966), The Maltese Falcon, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, 12 Angry Men, Aladdin, The Wizard of Oz, Dial M For Murder, Godzilla (1954), The Hurt Locker, The Breakfast Club, Iron Man, The Shining, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, Blade Runner, Rosemary’s Baby, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Princess Bride, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Toy Story, Star Wars – Part 1, Star Wars – Part 2, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Die Hard, Spirited Away

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I log reviews for every film I see, when I see them. You can see my main page here. Recent reviews include Iron Man (specifically in relation to 2008’s political climate), Tron and the excellent Son of Saul.

So this week was a bit light, because I’ve been pretty busy with New Year’s and Wrestle Kingdom. Next week, something a little more substantial. I hope we all continue to enjoy talking about movies we love in 2018.